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Sunday, May 13, 2001

Just what the herbologist ordered


Staff writer

Have ever wondered why sashimi is always served with wasabi? It's not just because they go well together. Wasabi is a powerful sterilizer and reduces the risk of food poisoning.

Just like wasabi, other herbs used as seasonings in the kitchen also have medicinal effects. In ancient times, herbs were mainly used to treat or prevent ill health and for religious purposes, rather than to satisfy the taste buds.

That doesn't mean the more herbs you ingest, the better. The medicinal properties of some herbs may work negatively on your body if they are eaten inappropriately or in great quantities in one sitting, warns Haruko Kirihara, an herb expert who has authored many books on the subject.

For instance, sage can heighten the risk of miscarriage in pregnant women, and tea made of fresh, as opposed to dried, Roman chamomile flowers may cause an upset stomach, she says.

"Even so, there's no need to be overly concerned [about misusing herbs]," Kirihara says. "Interestingly, the kinds you need to be careful with usually have a very strong smell and flavor," which discourage overdoing it.

So as long as you are using herbs as flavor-enhancers, you don't have to worry much about any negative effects they may have on your body, although you can't expect any dramatic medical benefits either.

Today, a great variety of herbs are now available at gardening shops, allowing you to grow them on your own at home. If you want to use such herbs for cooking, Kirihara says, first make sure which are edible and which are not, then decide which dishes they go best with.

She recommends that beginners start with dill and fennel for fish dishes, thyme, rosemary and sage for meat dishes, and parsley for a variety of dishes. All of these herbs can be grown easily in pots or planters, are safe for consumption and are excellent seasonings.

"Pick some leaves and start out by sprinkling them on your salad or soup," Kirihara advises. "You will gradually learn how to use them, and the taste of your daily meals will improve dramatically."

* * * Following is a list of herbs easily found at the supermarket and their culinary and medicinal uses.

Sage

Culinary: Sage can be used for both meat and fish dishes. Since its fresh, light fragrance removes greasy smells, sage is good with dishes incorporating minced meat and sardines. Sage is essential to making pork sausages.

Medicinal: Sage has a powerful astringent effect, and the extract from its leaves can be used to treat mouth sores and sore throats as well as to stop bleeding of the gums. Sage also promotes digestion and can be used to lower a fever.

Mint

Culinary: Because it goes well with sugar, mint is often used in sweet foods, such as candy, jelly and chocolates, or served with ice cream or cakes. In some countries, dried mint leaves are used in mutton dishes.

Medicinal: Menthol, the main ingredient of mint, works as a pain-killer, sterilizer and is widely used for medical purposes, especially in ointments.

Basil

Culinary: Characterized by its sweet refreshing smell, basil is an indispensable herb in Italian cuisine. Fresh leaves, which taste slightly bitter, are often used in salads and with pastas. Basil goes very well with tomato, and dried basil is essential as a spice in tomato sauce.

Medicinal: Basil soothes whooping cough and menstrual pains. It is also effective as a treatment for neuralgia and mouth sores.

Rosemary

Culinary: Rosemary has a rather strong, long-lasting grassy smell. It is often used in the cooking process for chicken, pork and mutton dishes to imbue the meat with its aroma, then removed before serving.

Medicinal: Rosemary has been used to treat colds, flu, headaches, upset stomachs and nervous disorders. Its essential oil can be used to treat skin irritations and itching.

Thyme

Culinary: Thyme is the best seasoning to erase the bad smell of meat and fish. It is often used for making Worcestershire sauces, ham, sausages, dressings and ketchup.

Medicinal: Thyme is a strong sterilizer and can be used to treat athlete's foot and other skin parasites. It is also good for coughs, colds and colic.

Oregano

Culinary: Fresh oregano is often sprinkled on top of salads or mixed in dressings. Dried oregano goes well intomato-based pizza and pasta sauces. The herb's strong smell complements meats such as mutton, chicken, sardines and mackerel.

Medicinal: Oregano can be used to treat flu, colds, fevers, asthma and rheumatism. It also clears the lungs and bronchial passages.

Dill

Culinary: Chopped dill leaves are generally sprinkled on top of salads, soups and seafood dishes. This is an essential spice for pickling vegetables.

Medicinal: Dill can be used to treat colic, gas and vomiting, and promotes digestion. Lotion made of dill is effective as an external remedy for piles.

Shiso

Culinary: Shiso is one of Japan's most popular herbs. Fresh shiso leaves are served with sashimi and other dishes. It is also sometimes eaten as tempura.

Medicinal: Shiso is effective as a sterilizer.



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